A Middle-Age Night’s Dream: Star-Crossed Guys in the ‘Burbs

Two Guys From Verona: A Novel of Suburbia , by James Kaplan. Atlantic Monthly Press, 341 pages, $24.

A friend who grew up in the suburbs and fled early on to Manhattan once confessed that she’s still haunted by two paralyzing fears. The first-that she’ll wind up as a homeless bag woman-strikes her as manageable compared to the other: that she’ll end up back in suburbia. Reading Two Guys From Verona, James Kaplan’s new novel, one begins to understand what she’s so afraid of: the daily routines, the franchised lives, the quietly desperate domesticity, the geographical and psychological confines so airless and claustrophobic as to make the hellish small room in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit look paradisically spacious.

Will and Joel, the two guys, are a pair of likable Rip Van Winkles who have snoozed off in their comfy bedroom communities and woken up on the brink of the millennium to discover, with some amazement, that they’re middle-aged, increasingly discontent-and still in Verona, N.J. Each secretly feels sorry for the other, indulging in that competitive, self-congratulatory compassion not uncommon among old friends who have made radically different choices. Actually, neither has made a choice so much as taken the default position. The gifted and formerly handsome Joel, the poet and metaphysician, is living with his mother and slapping together sandwiches professionally in the local sub shop. The less promising Will has done an apparently better job of creating the simulacrum of a successful adult existence. He’s gone into the family cardboard-box business, married, fathered two children, acquired a mortgaged, short-on-status house and a respectably hefty burden of personal debt.

As this amiable novel opens, the two friends are psychically armoring themselves to attend their 25th high school reunion. What soon becomes clear is that only their hairlines and waistlines have changed much since graduation. Will’s marriage to Gail, a real estate lawyer, has gradually degenerated, and their tepid bourgeois discontent manifests itself in the couple’s squabbles about their soaring car-phone bills and the messiness of their house. Will takes comfort in sexual fantasies involving an imaginary harem that includes his secretary and, later, an attractive-and married-classmate he encounters at the reunion. The objects of Joel’s affections are even more unobtainable and unlikely. Still carrying a torch for his wispy, unstable high school girlfriend, he makes regular late-night pilgrimages to the house where she used to live. Meanwhile, he’s developed a fixation on a punk girl nicknamed Chia Pet, a regular customer at the sub shop who flirts alternately with Joel, with trouble and with her mean, unsavory, gun-toting boyfriend, Romilar.

Mr. Kaplan defines his characters by their aspirations and worries, and the questions that gnaw at them are the hooks that draw us through the novel. Is Will’s father seriously ill, and will a corporate buyout enable him to buy Gail the house of her dreams? Will Gail succumb to the seductions of Mario, the oily real estate agent? Will Joel embrace or deflect the exuberantly lustful attentions of the sweet, sad fur-clad housewife Patty with the jealous, dangerous husband? Will Chia solve the riddle of who her real parents are-a mystery in which, we come to suspect, Joel is somehow implicated?

Mr. Kaplan has worked as both a journalist and novelist, and his skill at involving us in the lives of his characters, via a steady accretion of telling detail, makes Two Guys From Verona more and more assured as it progresses. A certain strain can be felt in the first chapters-it’s as if Mr. Kaplan is trying to make sure we know everything he knows about Will and Joel and their world, right away-but soon enough he lightens up and lets his characters speak for themselves. In the process, we become engaged by these hapless men and women, so comfortable and miserable as they play out their yearning, isolated versions of the American dream.

In addition to Will and Joel’s private fixations and dreads, a certain millennial anxiety pervades the book: “There was a feeling you got in your eyes and your sinuses at the year’s end, it had something to do with steam heat, and each day’s bright brief light … and the end of things, and the beginning of things. This was a very big end, and a very big beginning. Will tried to imagine how different he would feel as a man of the 2000’s, how it would feel to get up each morning and look at the paper and see that number. Part of him knew that everything would be roughly the same, but a larger part of him didn’t believe it. Part of him expected important shifts. Even the light and the shape of space, he thought-irrationally?-must be about to change.” In the wake of a grim, disastrous New Year’s Eve party to usher in the year 2000, the new millennium does arrive, bringing with it a reasonably cataclysmic series of crises involving random violence, financial disaster, welcome and disturbing revelations about the past and the future.

These personal and communal dramas transpire amid the familiar locales of the suburban township: the ladies’ lunches, the gluttonous country club breakfasts, the fiendishly competitive tennis games, the reassuringly upscale supermarkets: “The produce aisle was a work of art, not, as elsewhere, a jumble of disappointments … [T]here were 12 kinds of lettuce, every head picture-perfect, and tiny sprinklers went on periodically to make sure they stayed that way. The radicchio was never brown; the arugula looked as if it had just been yanked from the garden an hour before. Mozart played on the Muzak … and the other shoppers always looked as if they’d just gotten good news from their stockbroker. More than once Gail had seen women in full riding regalia, jodhpurs and knee boots, in the market.”

Mr. Kaplan is at his best when he’s describing the tribal rituals of these supremely mundane and deeply horrifying places, the moods of the highly formalized and ferocious exchanges masquerading as friendly sports events and casual social engagements.

Like John Updike, he knows the doldrums of domestic tedium and the elaborate power games that pass for congenial male bonding in those towns, and he knows how to convey them to us. He’s also got a good eye for suburban bad fashion. (“He wore an electric-blue warm-up, with aircraft-like stripes and chevrons in persimmon, yellow and black, and a brand-new model of Nikes that Will had seen advertised somewhere for three hundred dollars. The shoes, Barracudas, had viewing windows in the soles through which tiny toy fish were visible, floating in the patented TransGel system. They moved when you ran.”)

Excruciatingly familiar to those who have lived in the suburbs, and to middle-aged male suburbanites in particular, the descriptions in Two Guys From Verona may convince its urban readers to abandon their fantasy of the green lawns, the quiet cul-de-sacs, the two sport-utility-vehicle households-to build new bunk beds for the kids and tough it out in the city.